Theses will soon exist, unpicking this notion in far greater detail than what you’re about to digest in this article, narrowing the subject matter to specific strands of online restrictions and evolving security controls.
Consider the influence of a handful of political representatives – and a significant portion cannot be credited with a direct, extensive background and literacy in digital – who involve themselves in the regulation of an online world in its nascency of comprehending its own possibilities, and subsequently dictate broad policy on internet freedoms. In mid-2018, a U.K. Member of Parliament promoted the Online Forums Bill to “make administrators and moderators of certain online forums responsible for content published on those forums“; in other words, making group moderators and site owners legally accountable for user content. Stripping aside the merits or flaws in the MP’s arguments, should a policy idea be posited against such an overwhelming organism as online forum openness based on circumstantial experiences? If so, does this not prove that our lawmakers – so far – have no structured or fully-conceived method of restraining the might of online freedom of expression beyond emotive reactions to personal experiences?
Social media has never really been the digital Wild West, but it is on social platforms that we are likely to witness the final frontier of internet freedoms (for users and providers) dissipate before us. Social media (well, Twitter) accentuates tribalism; there is a form of online partisanship which exists that, arguably, blinds us to the blurred lines spanning freedom of expression. This also illustrates a microcosm of how confused we all are in the positioning of free expression relative to personal beliefs and sensibilities.
A planned digital services tax for mid-2020, introduced by the U.K. government and levied against tech heavyweights, suggests Western governments are getting to grips with (read: taxation) the digital age; in other words, appointing themselves as an antidote to tech giant growth. In Europe, new European Union copyright legislation – known as “Article 13” – may mean YouTube will prevent people from uploading some of their own videos to the website. Ultimately, the directive would render YouTube to be responsible for uploaded content and possibly curtail creative censorship. This is a significant curb on user habits and puts the “entire creative community at risk,” according to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Where will this lead?
Let us base our projections on recent trends. Last year, the EU imposed a $2.7 billion fine on Google for manipulation of search algorithms. This year, a $5 billion penalty against Google – again levied by the EU – relating to market dominance and antitrust laws. From these rulings we can draw a few conclusions. One: skewed algorithms, after all! Two: National and supranational entities have adopted responsibility for such infractions. Three: Tech monopolists have demonstrated they have the capabilities to monitor, manipulate and misuse the information and content by which they are sustained. Elon Musk described web users (as part of the “cybernetic collective”) as “leaves on a tree feeding Google and Facebook with our questions and queries” – are we little else?
We have reached a stage where computer processor power will grow ad infinitum, and with artificial intelligence likely to form an increasingly prevalent role in our lives, it is tech behemoths who are at the forefront and – debatably – unqualified governments who shall regulate. Perhaps the political satirist PJ O’Rourke’s line that “the mystery of government is not how Washington works but how to make it stop” inadvertently encapsulates this uneasiness on the muddled handling of the World Wide Web.